SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – As Salt Lake City and surrounding communities continue to attract new residents from out of state, new businesses are moving in as well. Many of these businesses are bars and restaurants, some locally owned, and some expanding out from larger cities.
Even though eatery numbers are increasing, staffing numbers don’t seem to be following suit. So when Utahns go out to try the hottest new restaurant, will there be enough workers there to serve them?
“I would hope that the restaurants that are coming in understand there’s a very tight labor market,” says Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, D.C. and a visiting professor at the University of Utah. “If they don’t, they’re going to have a hell of a time opening up and trying to build their staff from scratch.”
Both local establishments and new to market restaurants coming from larger cities are feeling the effects of the labor shortage. Matt Minichino, director of operations for Flanker Kitchen + Sporting Club – which is a division of Las Vegas-based Carver Road Hospitality – says that although they are optimistic, staffing their new restaurant has been more difficult than it would have been in years prior. As of press time, Flanker is about 70-80% staffed, and plans to open on December 8.
“We’re gonna do the best we can with what we have,” Minichino says. “We believe that the experience level of the people from a management to a senior leadership perspective can really help offset as we grow the staffing levels.”
After the venue is open for a few months – and has the opportunity to establish themselves in Salt Lake – Minichino anticipates reaching 100% staffing levels.
But locally owned venues that have already benefitted from word of mouth have experienced the effects of the labor shortage, too. Mark Fine, president of Ogden’s Own Distillery – which just opened a signature cocktail bar, Side Bar in late October – said, though the new venture benefitted greatly from their well-recognized brand, staffing still presented some issues.
“For sure it is still difficult to find good people that are passionate, hungry, and creative and willing to come and do what it takes to get the job done,” he says.
According to Baker, the labor shortage is largely a result of two factors: more demand in the economy and less employees willing to accept low-paying positions in the restaurant industry. Both of these factors can be traced back – at least partially – to the stimulus checks and unemployment benefits that people received during the pandemic. They provided people with extra cash to spend and often even offered workers more money than they had earned while working, which caused employees to think harder about the jobs they were willing to accept.
“A lot of people who were employed in lower-paying jobs, specifically part-time jobs, might well have been better off because they were getting 40% of their pay, plus $300 a week,” he says. “People have money in the bank, long and short, so they have options that they didn’t have previously.”
Restaurants and bars are seeing more of the effects of the labor shortage more than other industries, Baker says. These types of jobs have always had a higher turnover rate than those in other industries, and the pandemic showed workers that they had choices that they didn’t recognize before.
“There are opportunities to leave a restaurant and work for a higher-paying job that weren’t there before the pandemic,” Baker says.
So in order to attract and keep workers, restaurants and bars have been forced to get creative. Both Flanker and Side Bar cite their experiential, fun, and forward-thinking atmospheres as reasons why they feel they’ve been able to find workers. Creating a positive environment where employees are cared for, valued, and excited to come to work has become a focus for restauranteurs.
At Side Bar, management gives the employees an opportunity to share and grow their bartending skills by providing them with the ability to play an active role in cocktail recipe creation.
“Our team really has the ability to not be handcuffed,” says Fine. “Imagine a chef who can come to an establishment and create a menu they’ve been dreaming about. It’s the exact same principal we’re allowing our team here to do as mixologists.”
In addition, restaurants are also committing to training new employees, as opposed to mining from an already scant pool of experienced service industry workers.
“We realized that if we were going to go and try to wrangle existing hospitality people, the pool is already so small,” Minichino said. “So the idea was to go and try to find people that may be looking to jump into a new career and train them. That’s where we saw a really good influx of personnel.”
The element of newness and novelty has also worked in favor of establishments that are just opening in Utah. Minichino says there is an element of luster as a newcomer, which he believes has afforded Flanker some luck with staffing.
But Baker says this could mean trouble for local restaurants. Not only does the novelty factor have the possibility of pulling employees from local establishments, new eateries – especially if they are part of a chain or have more assets than Utah’s mom and pop dining options – have a greater ability to pay employees higher wages.
“Existing restaurants are going to be in a position where they’re losing more workers and finding an even more difficult time staffing their businesses,” he says. “What happens at the end of the day is some of these restaurants are going to go out of business.”
As for the future of the staffing shortage, it’s hard to say how long it’ll stick around, but Baker says it’s possible the restaurant industry will see lasting – possibly even permanent – changes. This could mean bad news for restauranteurs hoping to staff their establishments to pre-pandemic levels, but it could also be the catalyst for providing service industry workers with a better environment, better pay, and benefits.